When did journalism start in America?


Lucas Graves

To person

is Assistant Professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. [email protected]

In the past ten years, a new media institution has emerged with the fact check, especially in the United States, but increasingly also all over the world. More and more organizations are specializing in checking the truthfulness of claims made by politicians, be it as an independent website, as an integral part of a newspaper or in the context of news programs. There are currently over a hundred fact-checking websites around the world, almost all of which went online after 2010, [1] and during the 2016 US presidential campaign almost every news provider used political fact checks. How can this rapid spread be explained?

The new genre clearly goes beyond what media and communications scholar Kevin Barnhurst vividly calls new longjournalism - the comprehensively documented change over the past half century towards a more interpretive, analytical and critical reporting, especially on political issues. [2] Experts understand this even stronger focus on the analytical mainly as a cultural change in journalism that reflects a changed social climate, but also the reporters' striving for professional status and authority. This assumption is supported by the way journalists report on fact checking, as well as their self-confident portrayal that this is an innovation or evolution in political reporting. The fact-checking movement reproduces the professional ethics associated with more analytical journalism.

In this environment, a kind of institutional history has developed in which the fact checkers reconstruct the roots of their approach based on events that go back to the 1980s. This story tells of the failure of traditional objective reporting and how the guild responded with new ideas and techniques. At the same time, it creates a common frame of reference that underpins the self-perception of fact checkers as journalistic reformers, and thus provides further evidence of the "metajournalistic" discourse with which journalism reproduces itself as a community, sets limits and asserts or questions professional values provides - especially objectivity. [3]

In this article I would like to shed light on the history of political fact checking in US journalism, which led to the founding of the three organizations that are among the lighthouses of this now global movement: FactCheck.org, PolitiFact and the "Fact Checker" column of the daily newspaper " Washington Post ".

Problem child objectivity

Reporting that exposes the allegations of politicians has a long tradition on opinion sites, in investigative journalism or in the alternative press. For example, from the end of the 1950s, the left-wing journalist Isidor Feinstein Stone brought information boxes with brief fact checks in his scandal sheet "I.F. Stone’s Weekly". [4] Nevertheless, it was rare in the 20th century for exaggerations and deceptions by public figures to be directly and critically questioned in news reporting.

After all, as early as the 1950s, reporters referred to this as a kind of Achilles heel of objective journalism. "For decades the American press has paid homage to the god of objectivity," wrote a newspaper editor in 1951 at the height of the anti-communist hysteria, "that seemed to provide voters with comprehensive information, right up to the invention of the technique of the big lie." The obligation to be neutral meant that unscrupulous politicians like Senator Joseph McCarthy could count on the media to convey even the wildest allegations verbatim. As another contemporary noted, "under the pressure of McCarthy's methods, objective reporting simply encourages scandalous falsehoods". [6]

In the 1980s, journalists began to more confidently question claims made by politicians. This was, in part, a response to growing criticism of the failure of verbatim coverage of previous decades. With the election of Ronald Reagan as US President in 1980, a forerunner of the modern fact check appeared. Reagan's later reputation as a "Great Communicator" makes it easy to forget that he was already known for errors and exaggerations when he moved into the White House. [7] On his campaign tour, he claimed that trees cause more air pollution than cars and that Alaska has more oil than Saudi Arabia. Again and again he misrepresented the details of the government programs that he wanted to abolish. This motif ran through his entire presidency. "Ronald Reagan turned the press conference in the White House into a forum for inaccuracy, falsification and falsehood," it said towards the end of his term in office. [8]

The Washington Post was one of the newspapers that critically questioned the facts presented by the President. When Reagan took office, she began experimenting with short analytical clips that acted as ancillary to the news stories and highlighted his false claims. [9] To justify this accuracy, the newspaper pointed to the history of the president: "Reagan's press conference follows familiar pattern" was the headline of an article in September 1982 listing Reagan's "numerous factual errors" in an economic debate. [10] An impressive example was the analysis of a radio interview in 1985 in which Reagan had defended the progress that the regime in South Africa had made in dismantling apartheid: The Washington Post devoted a very critical lead story to Reagan's remarks and an info box from the Johannesburg correspondent the newspaper factually checked four key allegations. [11]

Former Washington Post editor Len Downey later stated that Reagan's reputation practically forced the paper to adopt this new concept: "I thought it was important that readers knew when it was inaccurate." [12] But after Protests from the readership, the format was abandoned again. "We stopped subjecting every press conference to a truth check and now left it to the Democrats. (...) We then quoted both sides," recalls former reporter Walter Pincus. [13] Overall, the number of such fact checks also declined sharply in the later years of Reagan's presidency. "This practice subsided when it became clear that most Americans weren't particularly interested," said media critic Howard Kurtz. [14]